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Posted April 2, 2009

Baugh: Free Speech, Regardless of Content, Promotes Flow of Ideas

Baugh

Law schools are not adequately teaching the importance of two cornerstones of American law, a public service lawyer said at the Law School on Tuesday.

David Baugh, capital defender for the central region of Virginia for the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, emphasized the importance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for all lawyers, regardless of what field of law they practice.

“The Constitution and the Bill of Rights — that’s like anatomy for medical people,” he said. “It’s basic. You have to learn it, and you have to appreciate it.”

The two documents are so important that Baugh likened them to a code or philosophy that guides the country and sets the United States apart from other nations of the world.

“This code is so strong…that we’re the only nation in the world where our president [and] our military swears an allegiance to a philosophy…not to a government, not to the dirt, but to some ideas,” he said.

Baugh, who also works closely with the American Civil Liberties Union, believes that it is a lawyer’s duty to protect these ideas, no matter the circumstance. In 2003, he defended Barry Black, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who had been arrested for burning a cross.

When questioned by others as to why he defended a Klansmen, Baugh returned to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, a text he calls “one of the most brilliant documents ever written in the history of man.”

“[Black] had a right to express how he felt about things, and my job was to defend his right because if the government can shut him up, they can shut up me,” Baugh said. “Every right that is guaranteed to you in the Constitution has a corresponding responsibility. For instance: free speech. If you want to have the right to speak freely, you [also] have to listen to a bunch of stupid crap.”

Although this might sound counterintuitive, Baugh said he believes allowing everyone to speak freely — even if they speak ignorantly — enhances the free flow of ideas.

“There is no idea that is so disgusting it can’t be discussed,” he said. “How can we progress unless we discuss every idea, even the bad ones?”

The Constitution is another document that protects Americans from the government and the majority, but it also also protects people from themselves, Baugh said.

In the Constitution, Baugh said, there is a back and forth between freedom and order. With too much freedom, people can do whatever they want, including endangering others. With too much order, however, the government can interfere in citizens’ lives and prevent the individual pursuit of happiness.

Freedom tends to be limited when people become scared, Baugh said. The Constitution ensures that even when people want to limit free speech they believe is troublesome — like that of the KKK — freedom is not compromised and everyone is still entitled to speak.

Lawyers are the only profession that can hold up this “quest for freedom” for the rest of the population, Baugh said.

“Rosa Parks would still be sitting in jail if it wasn’t for a lawyer,” he said.

Even though Baugh said defending cases like Black’s can be trying at times, he still loves his job.

“When I would pull into my parking space, my heart would soar because I get to go into the office and get paid for whipping someone’s butt and protecting freedom,” he said. “You know what that’s called? That’s called a purpose.”

Baugh’s best advice for law students was to find their own purposes in their legal careers.

“When you come out of here and you’re in debt up to your guts and you don’t know what you’re doing, I hope that each of you finds a purpose, that each of you gets to be as old as I am and still can hardly wait to come to work,” he said.

• Reported by lindsey wagner